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Lessons of war — from the Champlain Valley

July 20, 2012
By Tony Hall , Lake George Mirror

By late June 1777, British Gen. John Burgoyne and his army were roughly 60 miles north of Lake George, on their way toward victory at Ticonderoga and ultimate defeat at Saratoga.

On June 23, Burgoyne camped at the mouth of the Boquet River, near the present hamlet of Essex, on Lake Champlain.

There, Hague summer resident Russell Bellico writes in his "Chronicles of Lake Champlain," "Burgoyne met with his Native American allies. Speaking through an interpreter, Burgoyne urged the warriors to 'strike at the common enemies of Great Britain,' but 'positively forbid bloodshed, when you are not opposed in arms. Aged men, women, children and prisoners, must be held sacred from the knife or hatchet. ... You shall be allowed to take the scalps of the dead ... but on no account are they to be taken from the wounded.'"

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John Burgoyne, British army officer during the American Revolutionary War
(Engraving by Samuel Hollyer, public domain)

Tradition has it that rather than restraining them, Burgoyne's speech incited his allies, encouraging them to slay as many people as possible.

When reports of the speech reached Parliament, Edmund Burke said that Burgoyne was like a zookeeper who had turned loose his wild beasts, with this proviso: "My gentle lions, my sentimental wolves, my tender hearted hyenas, go forth, but take care not to hurt men, women or children."

To Burgoyne's address, historians have attributed incidents like the Indians' murder of Jane McCrea and the growing, popular resistance to the British armies.

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Guided by Eliot Cohen, the author of the recent "Conquered into Liberty: Two Centuries of Battles Along the Great Warpath that Made the American Way of War" who presented a talk at Fort Ticonderoga last month, we can put Burgoyne's words and the deeds they inspired into an even larger context - the American way of war.

According to Cohen, American armies learned to adapt to unforeseen and changing circumstances on and around Lake George in part by observing the behavior of their enemies. They would abide by the legal and conventional norms of warfare until, or unless, forced to do otherwise, "resorting to ruthless means when that appeared necessary."

Cohen writes, "In 2011 a liberal American president had no compunction about ordering raiders into an allied country to kill, not capture, the architect of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. The Navy SEALs who shot Osama bin Laden reported his death using as code for the founder of Al Qaeda the name of an Indian chieftain. Once again, the ruthless norms of frontier warfare trumped whatever compunctions international law and custom might have created."

Leaders try to be judicious, Cohen said at Fort Ticonderoga, "but war is a blunt instrument" and sometimes their choices are few.

If there is any moral lesson to be drawn from this, it is that there is no such thing as a good war, however just the cause. If Cohen is correct, that is a lesson that Americans first learned in the valleys of Lake George and Lake Champlain.


This essay originally appeared as an editorial in today's issue of the Lake George Mirror, of which Tony Hall is editor and publisher.



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